Musings on the Coast

Michael Ray

The Concrete Foreman


My father was a construction contractor and I worked on his jobsites from the time I was 8.   So from my earliest years, I knew Vic Vaca.  He was my dad’s concrete foreman. By God, he was a specimen.  I did not know that then.   All I knew was Vic worked his butt off and if you were around him you did too.   Or else.


Concrete is incredibly heavy and difficult. Vic made it look easy.  He was big, thick and hard as nails.  One time, he stumbled with a circular saw and severed a half-inch from his left index finger.  He swore but did not scream.  I could see his real concern was slipping in front of his crew. So there was no medic, no ambulance, no trip to the hospital, none of that.   He wrapped his finger and kept on going.   Periodically, he would re-wrap it because the blood kept seeping, but that was that.


That was Vic. He had carried a machine gun in WWII in the Pacific Theater where it was particularly vicious, so construction was nothing.  You hurt a little finger? It was nothing.


Jobsites were dangerous places then.  All kinds of equipment or conditions could cut you in half.   Jack hammers, power saws, open trenches with rebar sticking out like knives; third-story work with no nets. Hard hats. Yeah, that was a joke.  Vic did not care.   Were you a man?  He wanted speed, action, get your ass moving.


When you build anything, the most important thing is the foundation.  You get that right and all else flows. In those days architectural details were scarce.  Vic could read the sheets and think in three dimensions: if he sunk a concrete bolt in that place, how would it impact the beam where it connected to the roof three stories above six months later?    Vic could picture it. He would make little drawings with algebraic equations to prove he was right, and all that with no formal education.


One time he was laying out the particularly complicated, multi-level foundation for a convent in Laguna (yes, a convent), and the architect had it all wrong. It was on a Monday and we were supposed to pour on Friday. So on the reverse side of one sheet, Vic re-drew what was required, made sure the laborers, cement masons, carpenters, electricians and plumbers all got it—-and completed the pour on time, on budget, no sweat.


Another time I was screwing around on a jobsite and Vic caught me.   It was in Costa Mesa and really hot, over 90 degrees.   Vic banished me to a four-feet deep trench full of concrete forms—rebar and batter boards—ready for pouring the next day.  The trench twisted and turned throughout the site. In it, my designated job was to crawl over, under and around the forms, pick up random pieces of wood, rocks and rebar and toss them outside the trench. Inside, the temperature was well above 100. I spent the rest of the day down there.  Every 20 minutes or so, Vic would find me, look down, and say just two words.  “Hot, huh?”


He died the other day, withered and very old, and I could not bear to go see him in his last days.  I could not. I did not want that memory.


The memory I want, the one I have, is of the bankers who would come round with pink hands, ever-so-carefully stepping to avoid the dust, and Vic Vaca, magnificently fierce, staring at them with utter contempt.

Michael Ray grew up in CdM and now lives in Laguna Beach.  He makes a living as a real estate entrepreneur and is involved in many non-profits.






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